University of California, Riverside

UCR Newsroom

Geneticist Calls for More Access to Biotech Crop Data

Scientists Call for More Access to Biotech Crop Data

To assess the impact of biotech crops, a finer spatial resolution of their distribution is needed, says UCR’s Norman Ellstrand

(April 25, 2008)

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — More than one billion acres of biotech crops have been grown in the United States, but their environmental impacts are not fully known. In Arizona, however, maps of biotech cotton fields are enabling detailed analyses of the effects of this technology.

Now a team of scientists, including UC Riverside’s Norman Ellstrand, a professor of genetics in the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences and the director of the Biotechnology Impacts Center, proposes that making similar maps of the entire United States of biotech — or genetically engineered — crops available to scientists will permit much-needed studies of their environmental impacts.

Access to maps of biotech crops on a county and township level, the team argues, will give researchers greater ability to analyze the effects of biotech crops on wildlife, water quality, and on pest and beneficial insects.

The effects of biotech crops is an issue that is often the subject of debates. While some people claim that biotech crops reduce insecticide use, tillage and the erosion of topsoil, others insist that these crops hurt native species.

“If we had geographic information regarding where biotech crops are grown, we could test a lot of the claims about their impacts — both positive and negative,” Ellstrand said. “To evaluate the benefits and other impacts of such crops, we need to localize their distribution on a geographic scale much smaller than the acreage in a state. But to prevent harassment of those who grow these crops, the scale cannot be as fine as an individual farm.”

The scientists publish their proposal as a Policy Forum in the April 25 issue of Science. The article builds on suggestions for monitoring and more transparency that were recommendations of a 2002 National Research Council Report, “Environmental Effects of Transgenic Plants,” written by a 12-member committee that included Ellstrand and Alan McHughen, a biotechnologist and geneticist at UCR.

At the present time, the authors of the Science Policy Forum write, the U.S. Department of Agriculture collects data at the scale of individual farms, but the data are only available to researchers at the scale of entire states. The scientists argue that answering key questions about the environmental impacts of genetically engineered crops requires finer spatial resolution.

“In the case of California, the vast fraction of the state’s genetically modified crop acreage is currently in herbicide tolerant cotton,” Ellstrand said.

His coauthors on the Policy Forum are Michelle Marvier of Santa Clara University, Calif., the first author of the paper; Yves Carrière and Bruce Tabashnik of The University of Arizona in Tucson; Paul Gepts of UC Davis; Peter Kareiva of Santa Clara University and The Nature Conservancy; Emma Rosi-Marshall of Loyola University, Chicago, Ill.; and L. LaReesa Wolfenbarger of the University of Nebraska in Omaha.

The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

A broadcast studio with fiber cable to the AT&T Hollywood hub is available for live or taped interviews. UCR also has ISDN for radio interviews. To learn more, call (951) UCR-NEWS.

More Information 

General Campus Information

University of California, Riverside
900 University Ave.
Riverside, CA 92521
Tel: (951) 827-1012

Department Information

Media Relations
900 University Avenue
1156 Hinderaker Hall
Riverside, CA 92521

Tel: (951) 827-6397 (951) UCR-NEWS
Fax: (951) 827-5008

Related Links